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Historic Mural Comes Home

By Phil Wayne
Staff Writer

December 21 -- An historic mural -- its 38 panels long separated on opposite coasts -- will soon come together on the walls of the new Santa Monica Main Library where it will receive its first public viewing in four decades.

The optimism of City officials, who made room for the return of the Depression-era mural in the library’s design even before funding was secured, was rewarded last week when the State agreed to provide $113,000 in matching funds, roughly half of what will be needed to ship, restore and install the mural.

Entitled “Technical and Imaginative Pursuits of Early Man,” the mural by Santa Monica resident Stanton Macdonald-Wright depicts the course of human development, from primitive man to 1930s Hollywood. The work highlights what what the artist considered to be the two most important facets -- technology and creativity.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright at the unveiling of the murals in the reading room of the Santa Monica Library. Circa 1930s (Photos courtesy of City of Santa Monica)

The mural, specifically designed for the old Santa Monica library torn down in the 1960s, has been under the control of the Smithsonian Institution, which has kept most of the panels in storage.

Since the works were created as part of the federally funded Public Works of Art Project, ownership reverted back to the government’s Federal Arts Program when Santa Monica chose to demolish the original library.

“Murals are made specifically for a community or a site,” said Dr. Ilene Fort, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and an expert in the work of Macdonald-Wright, who died in 1973 and is considered by some to be one of Southern California’s premier modernist painters.

The mural panels -- which contain scenes from the area including Santa Monica Bay and references to the film industry, which fascinated the artist -- are finally “going back to the community they were designated for,” Fort said.

Motion Picture Industry with Santa Monica Bay in background

Efforts to return the important work to its rightful home have been underway for years, according to local historian Roger Genser, a member of the City’s Landmarks Commission who pushed for the mural’s return.

“The architects were directed to design the new library with the murals in mind,” said Genser, who formerly chaired the Arts Commission.

The mural panels -- which were painted on plywood -- are slated to be installed on the second floor of the new $66 million library in a section designated for periodicals, history and reference.

They feature colors that are “phenomenal,” said Karen Ginsberg, assistant director of The City’s Department of Community and Cultural Services.

Dr. deForest

The mural’s homecoming comes three years after the City Council directed staff to work with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) to have the panels “returned, conserved and installed” in the new library.

According to a recent staff report, “The City received correspondence [in June 2004] from the SAAM indicating its willingness to enter into an agreement with the City for the long-term loan of the mural series with the stipulation that funds for the transport, conservation and installation be provided by the City.”

City staff estimated the mural program would cost roughly $230,000. Half of that funding will be provided by the State grant, issued by the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE) using funding from Proposition 40, passed in 2002.

The endowment administers a grant program providing funds for public agencies and non-profit organizations to share “the many stories and narrative events that embrace California’s culture and history.”

The other half of the funding will come from the City, which has the monies available in a Library capital improvement project.

The art work, Fort said, is significant because it represents the “first major Southern California mural” created under the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project program, which predated the Federal Art Project of the WPA, Fort said.

In addition, Macdonald-Wright was “one of the most renowned Southern California modernists” of the time, Ginsberg said.

Other local works by Macdonald-Wright include a terrazzo mural in the Santa Monica City Hall foyer, as well as "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla," which serves as the fire curtain at Santa Monica High School's Barnum Hall.

Macdonald-Wright, created a style of art known as “Synchronism” with fellow artist Morgan Russell. The style emphasizes the use of color as a means of expression.

Solar system

The work of art boasts “brilliant use” of color and “children will find it quite interesting,” predicts Fort.

One of the largest panels is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the Ahmanson Building.

The mural panels -- totaling over 2,000 square feet and featuring more than 160 figures -- have been in storage in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles ever since the first Santa Monica library was demolished.

Because the mural is under the control of the Smithsonian, the restoration and installation program must be conducted according to strict guidelines set forth by the institution, including such considerations as humidity and sunlight levels.

Images in the reading room at the old library, torn down in the 1960s

While the selection of a company to perform the restoration has yet to be finalized, Ginsberg indicated that the current intent is for the work to be executed by the same team that was retained to examine the condition of mural panels currently in storage.

Ginsberg is hopeful that restoration will be completed in time for the opening of the new library, perhaps towards the end of 2005.

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